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Negro Ensemble Company to perform World Premiere of“Mecca Is Burning”

Ode to Harlem Composite Play at Harlem School of the Arts, August 10-20

The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (NEC), in conjunction with their residency at Penn Live Arts, will perform the world premiere of “Mecca Is Burning,” a composite play by four playwrights, tonight, Thursday, August 10 through Sunday, August 20, through at Harlem School of the Arts, 645 St. Nicholas Ave., Manhattan.
Over the past year, each of the four playwrights penned a different story about a family living in a Harlem building, each story being independent of the others until a catastrophic event connects them all. The four playlets were then braided together by director Karen Brown. The resulting two-act script was assembled over the past year under a commission from Penn Live Arts, funded by The Sachs Program for Arts Innovation at University of Pennsylvania. A work-in-progress of the play was mounted February 15 to 18, 2023 by Penn Live Arts at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia.
“Mecca is Burning” confronts social and racial themes through the use of protest poetry, dialogue and monologues examining our current social climate from the perspective of four fictional Harlem families.

In the play, four Black families who inhabit a brownstone in Harlem variously face up to a crisis that could be imagined from the Trump-drugged, factional politics we are living with today. It mixes live music, dance, civil rights era poetry, and contemporary prose, taking inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s acclaimed “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.” The piece aims to illuminate the fragile perspective of contemporary African Americans: a population battered by gentrification, the retraction of equality and human rights, cultural suppression and the actual possibility of civil war with far-right extremists.
The title suggests how Harlem, once considered the Mecca for Black Americans, is moving further and further away from its roots as a cauldron of Black culture. Playwright Chris Ei Blak explained the theme in an interview for WHYY (Philadelphia), saying “Harlem was once considered the Mecca for African Americans. It was where you could come and be an artist, [or] a professional. It was really this safe haven, this urban holy land for African Americans. But if you look at Harlem now, it’s a completely different place. It’s gotten to the point where the people who built it, the people who considered it that sacred land, can no longer afford it and are being pushed out.”
The play opens with a character named Marcus lamenting the cultural loss of his childhood neighborhood. It then visits four families who might exemplify the region’s impending upheavals.
The play was collaboratively written by Cris Eli Blak, Lisa McCree, Levy Lee Simon and Mona R. Washington under the leadership of Karen Brown, Artistic Director and Executive Producer of NEC, who directs the piece.

In “From Rage and Reason,” the section by Levy Lee Simon, Candace and Marcus are both professionals. Marcus discovers that his wife is a militant and he didn’t know it.
In “Down to the White Meat,” the section by Lisa McCree, a couple is at odds in their responses to impending violence. Dee’ Ja-Ray wants to move back to Connecticut, where she grew up, but A’Brian insists on staying in Harlem because it’s the world he knows.
In “Papa Goes Away, Papas Never Stay,” the section by Chris Eli Blak, Henry is an everyman laborer and Domenica is his college-bound daughter. As a civil war in Harlem is breaking out between white supremacists and local Black residents, Henry intends to fight for the first time in his life. He had never before challenged the system to gain respect as a Black man. Domenica fears she’ll have nothing if he dies.
“Queen Shea,” the section by Mona R Washington, is quirky comic relief. Kyla and Alicia, sisters, are frozen with inaction as they, like many, try to flee the Cracker insurrection but are tripped up by petty domestic complications like college schedules and packing hair products.
The ensemble (now in formation) includes Chandler Acloque, Ray Alton, Ashlee Danielle, Tomike Ogugua, Joy Renee Leblanc, Benjamin Rowe, Sharell Williams and Kenya Wilson. Lighting designer is Melody A. Beal. Set designer is Patrice Davidson. Sound designer is David Wright. Costume designer is Rhonda Lucas. Choreographer is Leslie Dockery. Composer is Nate Waller. Dramaturg is A.J. Muhammad. Stage Manager is Fulton Hodges.
Karen Brown (Director) is Artistic Director & Executive Producer of NEC. She has worked in the theater for over 20 years. Early in her career, she launched the Innercity Youth Summer Theatre Project at the Kalamazoo Civic Theater in Michigan. Brown later served as producer/director of a Chicago-based theater company, before becoming a public school teaching artist. She subsequently worked with several prestigious New York-based companies, including The American Place Theater, the National Black Touring Circuit, Inc. and Ensemble Studio Theater. Prior to joining the Negro Ensemble Company, Brown was a theater arts educator in California and Michigan. She holds degrees from Western Michigan University and Miami University of Ohio.

Cris Eli Blak’s work has been performed off-Broadway, in London, Canada and Ireland. He’s currently the recipient of the Emerging Playwrights Fellowship from The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre and a selected participant of The Kennedy Center Playwrights Intensive. He strives to create work that reflects the world we live in. His play “Clipper Cut Nation” was co-commissioned by NEC and Penn Live Arts for “Our Voices, Our Time,” which was presented last fall at The Annenberg Center, Philadelphia by Penn Live Arts and at the The Cherry Lane Theatre by NEC.
Lisa McCree is author of 25 plays including “Faces in My Fist,” “The Horn of Salvation and Indignation” (directed by Bill Cobbs), “P.S. Write Back,” “Miss Diagnosis” and “A Year Ago Today.” Her work has been produced and/or developed by Harlem Theater Co., New Perspectives 5.0, Silver Trane, Theater Outlet (Allentown, PA), Access Theater, The Genesius Guild, Saint Mark’s Theater, The Henry Street Settlement (Women of Color Festival), Atlantic Theater, Neighborhood Playhouse, CUNY College Radio and WBAI. She has been commissioned for theatrical pieces for The Medicine Show, Sea Island Nightmare, The Miserable Matter of Slavery, Russel Simmons, and Def Comedy Jam (comics Rob Stapleton and Tha Stuff). Awards and Top Honors include Humanitarian Award (Allentown, PA), NYU’s 1-2 Idea into Action Playwriting Competition, Frank Silvera Writers’ Workshop and the National Black Theater Festival (Winston-Salem, NC).

Levy Lee Simon, originally from Harlem, earned an MFA at University of Iowa Playwright’s Workshop. He is a member of the Actor’s Studio Playwright/Directors Unit and The Tent Playwright’s Collective. His plays include “For the Love of Freedom – the trilogy” (two NAACP nominations for Best Playwright and an Ovation Nomination for Best Full Length Play), “The Bow Wow Club” (Lorraine Hansberry Award/ Best Full Length Play – National Black Theatre Festival selection), “Same Train” (OOBR Award/Best Play – NBTF selection), “Smell the Power” (New Voices Playwriting Award/Best Play), “The Stuttering Preacher” (Best Plays Yearbook selection, 2006) and “The Guest at Central Park West” (Audelco Award/Best Playwright and Dramatic Production of the Year). He has optioned film and television scripts to studios in Hollywood and New York and has several projects in development.
Mona R. Washington is an award-winning playwright, librettist and activist. A 2021 New Jersey Artist Individual Fellowship recipient, her plays have been performed in Italy and France, as well as the United States. Her play “I Don’t Do That” was co-commissioned by NEC and Penn Live Arts for “Our Voices, Our Time,” which was presented last fall at The Annenberg Center, Philadelphia by Penn Live Arts and at the The Cherry Lane Theatre by NEC.



Negro Ensemble Company’s awards include a Pulitzer Prize (1982, “A Soldier’s Play”), two Tony Awards, eleven Obies and many more. Its legacy reads like a Who’s Who of America’s Black theater artists.
Prior to the 1960s, there were virtually no outlets for the wealth of Black theatrical talent in America. In 1965, Playwright Douglas Turner Ward, producer/actor Robert Hooks, and theater manager Gerald Krone founded The Negro Ensemble Company, Inc. (NEC) to provide a haven and platform for African American actors and playwrights, to create works that otherwise would not have access to Broadway stages, and to elevate the authentic, underrepresented stories coming out of the Black experience.
“The River Niger” by Joe Walker, originally produced at St. Marks Playhouse (NEC’s home theater), moved to Broadway and was awarded 1973 Obie Awards for Distinguished Performance for Douglas Turner Ward, Best American Play for Joseph A. Walker, and Distinguished Performance for Roxie Roker. Other significant works of this period included Peter Weiss’ “Song of the Lucitanian Bogey” (1967), Lonnie Elder’s “Ceremonies in Dark Old Men” (1969) and Charles Fuller’s “Zooman and the Sign” (1980). In 1981, NEC mounted “A Soldier’s Play” by Charles Fuller, which won the Pulitzer Prize. A film version, “A Soldier’s Story,” was released in 1984 and nominated for three Academy Awards.

NEC has produced more than two hundred new plays and provided a theatrical home for more than four thousand cast and crew members. Among its ranks have been some of the best black actors in television and film, including Louis Gossett Jr., Sherman Hemsley, Denise Nichols, Esther Rolle, Adolph Caesar Laurence Fishburne, Glynn Turman, Reuben Santiago-Hudson, S. Epatha Merkerson, and Phylicia Rashad; playwrights include steve carter (intentionally lower case), Samm-Art Williams, Leslie Lee. In 2009, Signature Theatre presented a season of readings of various plays from the NEC canon, with Douglas Turner Ward as curator and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as associated artist. NEC continues to be a constant source and sustenance for black actors, directors, and writers as they have worked to break down walls of racial prejudice.

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